Supremely cinematic and richly drawn in penetrating, slow-burn emotions, "Snow Falling On Cedars" is a truly transporting, layered, period drama that uses the railroading murder trial of a Japanese-American in post-war Washington state as the backdrop for a story about the lasting scars of injustice.
Director Scott Hicks' prestige follow-up to "Shine," one of the films that led the 1996 independent film insurgence into the mainstream, this passionate adaptation of Dave Guterson's deeply layered novel (scripted by the director and screenwriter Ron Bass) stars Ethan Hawke as a reticent newspaperman and war vet who covers the trial and pursues the truth on his own while becoming awash in memories of his forbidden first love -- with a Japanese girl who is now the defendant's wife.
Told initially from Hawke's point of view, as the trial unfolds, its scope widens to include the memories of others, like the girl (Youki Hudoh, a Japanese actress and pop star with an startling, yet understated, emotional range), who remembers being separated from Hawke at first by cultural taboos and then by the government order that sent her family -- and all the Japanese on their quiet forest island -- to internment camps for the duration of the war.
Hicks' attention to detail, both emotional and visual, gives "Cedars" an enveloping depth. This is a film with surprisingly little dialogue outside the courtroom (the lawyers have more lines than the stars), yet the manifold complexities of the mystery -- including the prejudice behind the prosecution of Kazuo Miyamoto (Rick Yune), a decorated American war hero -- and the burning heartbreak that haunts the unrequited lovers are both vivid and vicarious.
But Hicks' greatest ally in bringing this story to life is Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Richardson (responsible for the look of most of Oliver Stone's films), who paints the picture in such leaden colors that even the near-constant snowstorms seem somehow shadowy.
The film opens with a wonderfully obscure shot of fishing boats in the fog at night, and like the story itself, the shapes emerge slowly from the mist. But even before the silhouettes become unclouded, this nebulous shot has created an incredible sense of place, which is only enhanced by the subsequent settings in majestic cedar forests, the rain and snow, and the blackness of the island's surrounding waters in the dawn sun.
Hawke does a fine job of personifying the film's wintry mood, projecting the weight of his character's experience and regret in the story's present (the 1950s period detail is remarkable) and also expressing his youthful defiance and hopefulness in the teenage flashbacks to before the war and before he and the girl were ripped apart.
"Snow Falling On Cedars" is intricate, lengthy and becomes overdramatic in its finale -- and sometimes Hicks misplaces his sense of subtlety. The gothic chorus music during Hawke's war flashbacks and a scene with a little Japanese girl singing the national anthem as she arrives at an internment camp are both a bit much.
But the movie is nothing if not emotionally resonant. The extremely effective scene following the shot of the little girl is of a half-empty school bus (only the town's white kids are left). Even minor scenes are knockouts, like the one in which the local sheriff brings the bad news to the apparent murder victim's widow vibrates with tension and grief.
It might sound like "Cedars" is all over the map with its intersecting stories of memory, but as demonstrated by the testimony in the trial that serves as the movie's framework, it's the different perspectives that drive the mini-epic narrative. It's a film about how recollection haunts the soul.